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Columbia Hit with Another Antisemitism Lawsuit

It’s the second lawsuit this month claiming the university dismissed Jewish students concerns.
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February 27, 2024
Aitor Diago/Getty Images; Lya_Cattel/Getty Images

Columbia University has been hit with yet another antisemitism lawsuit, this time filed by Kasowitz Benson Torres on behalf of several students and the StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and others, alleging that the university has failed to adequate address antisemitism on campus for years.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Thursday, Feb. 22, states that following the Oct. 7 massacre, University President Minouche Shafik initially “urged faculty to bring ‘clarity and context’ to the greatest loss of Jewish life since the Holocaust” instead of condemning the massacre and was silent on anti-Israel protests following the massacre. StandWithUs argued that the university’s response showed a double standard given that the university in the past denounced “Asian violence in the COVID-19 pandemic and George Floyd’s murder.”

Additionally, student and faculty groups issued statements following the massacre explaining that Palestinians have the “right to resist”; students and faculty members also defended Professor Joseph Massad, who lauded the Oct. 7 massacre as “innovative Palestinian resistance” and a “stunning victory.” Shafik did eventually issue statements saying that she’s “devastated by the horrific attack on Israel and the ensuing violence that is affecting so many people” and that “the University will take all available steps to help you” regarding concerns about personal safety on campus.

But Jewish students don’t feel safe on campus, the lawsuit alleges, claiming that five Jewish Israeli students were assaulted in front of the university’s Butler Library; the assailant is accused of attacking the students with a stick after the students confronted the assailant for tearing down hostage posters. The assailant also allegedly punched one of the students, resulting in head lacerations and a broken finger. The assailant was arrested and charged with assault, but the university’s response was to tell the victim to stay off campus on Students for Justice in Palestine’s (SJP) “Day of Resistance.”

On the “Day of Resistance” itself, the lawsuit claims that one Jewish student “had an Israeli flag ripped off his back within direct view of a Public Safety guard booth.” Pro-Palestinian protesters also climbed the Alma Mater statue “and used megaphones to broadcast their threats,” which the lawsuit argues was in violation of university policy barring the endangerment of “property on a university facility” and causing “noise that substantially hinders others in their normal academic activities.” Additionally, pro-Palestinian protesters left their designated area to march around campus, where they allegedly shouted at a Jewish student holding a sign about the Oct. 7 massacre that the massacre was “fake news.” The protesters also marched toward the university’s Hillel, prompting the Hillel to go on lockdown for more than an hour.

Between the Day of Resistance and subsequent pro-Palestinian rallies on campus, one Jewish student anonymously quoted in the lawsuit said they could not concentrate while on campus to the point where they needed to complete their coursework remotely; this student had been frequently going to his lab on campus and was forced to pass through these protests on campus.

Jewish student Miles Rubin is named in the lawsuit as having gone through a similar experience, as he requested to take his classes through Zoom because he simply could not “bear witness” to all the pro-Palestinian protests on campus; his request was denied. Rubin then allegedly experienced two confrontations during a pro-Palestinian campus walkout on Oct. 25: he “was shoved by a student wearing a keffiyeh” and attempting to deescalate a situation where a pro-Palestinian protester was “aggressively waving” a Palestinian flag in front of three Jewish students. In the latter incident, Rubin “was swarmed by students who falsely accused him of being the aggressor.” He was going to report the latter incident, only to discover that “10 officers [were] standing around ignoring the chaos outside”; as for the former, Rubin did report it, but was told that there was nothing the university could do about it.

Columbia did suspend their SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapters following a Nov. 9 “Shut It Down!” protest, where protesters allegedly shouted “f— the Jews” and “death to Jews” and “screamed at a rabbi while he was praying with students.” A student organizer is accused in the lawsuit of directing protesters “to physically push a small group of pro-Israel students back.” These were not the reasons why the university suspended the SJP and JVP chapters; instead, they were suspended “for their violations of campus policies,” per the lawsuit, though the university did note there was “threatening rhetoric and intimidation” during that protest. Further, because the suspension simply applied to the SJP and JVP groups but not their members, their members simply got around the suspension by reviving the Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD) group, which the lawsuit alleges disrupted a panel on the Israel-Hamas war and heckled attendees. Eventually, both SJP and JVP have advertised and held events despite the suspension and the university has done nothing about it, the lawsuit alleges.

There are similar allegations throughout the rest of the lawsuit of pro-Palestinian protesters disrupting classes and events, protesters pinning a student to a wall for wearing a shirt with an Israeli flag on it, and protesters harassing and intimidating a student who held an Israeli flag during a pro-Palestinian rally. University staff members are also accused of tearing down hostage posters, and the leader of student club for those who identify as queer and nonbinary wrote in an email that “Zionists aren’t invited” to the club … and the university bestowed an award on her, according to the lawsuit.

In January, Shafik held a “Listening Forum,” where one of the Jewish students listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit told her that Jewish students don’t feel safe on campus, causing them to avoid parts of campus or the campus in its entirely, and cited the university’s “inaction” on the matter. Shafik’s response was to mention “Columbia’s sponsored events” and cited one event that was actually disrupted by pro-Palestinian protesters, which she failed to mention. She also suggested that the university needs to better prepare students to be “more resilient,” per the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also includes allegations of antisemitism before Oct. 7, including a Jewish professor’s office walls being spray-painted with swastikas and an antisemitic slur in Nov. 2018, students “passing around an image of a swastika” in 2022 while repeating antisemitic conspiracy theories promulgated by rapper Kanye West and faculty members making anti-Israel comments such as claiming that Jews have no connection to Israel and that a map of Israel is a “military map of illegal conquest.”

The allegations of antisemitism listed in the lawsuit, and Columbia’s alleged inaction to those incidents, violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and New York state laws, the lawsuit contends. The plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages and injunctive relief requiring the university to better protect Jewish and Israeli students on campus.

“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of StandWithUs’ newly created Center for Legal Justice, said in a statement. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies. Our aim in being a plaintiff in this lawsuit is to hold Columbia accountable under Title VI for blatant failures to live up to their obligations under federal law and to compel Columbia to restore its campus to the safe environment for Jewish students that existed over twenty-five [years] ago.”

“Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.” –  Yael Lerman, StandWithUs

This is the second antisemitism lawsuit filed against the university this month. On Feb. 12, The Lawfare Project filed a lawsuit against the university on behalf of a Jewish student claiming that she was forced out of the university’s Dialectical Behavioral Training program due to antisemitic discrimination. The university declined to comment on the matter to the Journal at the time, as the university does not comment on pending litigation.

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